HC Deb 28 March 1994 vol 240 cc650-6

'. After section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 there shall be inserted the following section—"Cost of secure accommodation. 61A.—(1) The Secretary of State may, in relation to any costs incurred by a local authority in discharging their duty under section 61(1) above—

  1. (a) defray such costs to such extent as he considers appropriate in any particular case;
  2. (b) defray a proportion to be determined by him from time to time of such costs; and
  3. (c) defray or contribute to such costs in accordance with a tariff to be determined by him from time to time.

(2) The Secretary of State may require any person providing secure accommodation to transmit to him, at such times and in such form as he may direct, such particulars as he may require with respect to any costs to which this section applies.

(3) Payments under this section shall be made out of money provided by Parliament.".'.—[Mr. Maclean.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse)

With this it will be convenient to take the following:

Amendment (a), in line 3, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Amendment (b), in line 6, leave out 'such costs to such extent as he considers appropriate' and insert 'all reasonable costs'.

Amendment (c), leave out lines 8 to 11. Government new clause 79 and Government amendments Nos. 53, 54, 52 and 57.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I hope that new clause 74 will command considerable support on both sides of the House. It demonstrates the Government's commitment to the proper financing of our policies. We are concerned that the normal methods of local government finance are not necessarily the best way of distributing resources required to fund the revenue costs of local authority secure accommodation for remands.

The local authority associations have pointed out that the revenue support grant mechanism is not necessarily sensitive enough to reflect the differences between local authorities in terms of the potential numbers of young people who may in future be remanded to secure accommodation. Some local authorities might have large numbers of young people remanded in secure accommodation and others might have none. As hon. Members know, the costs of secure accommodation are high; while the Government will be taking steps to contain them, it is important that the system of financing is as effective as possible.

The purpose of new clause 74 is to give central Government a power to reimburse costs incurred by local authorities in accommodating juveniles subject to court-ordered secure remands. The Government have not yet determined how the powers will be used in practice. A decision will be made after full consultation with the local authority associations. The Government have felt it important to use this opportunity to take the necessary powers. We expect the annual cost to be about £16 million per annum.

Therefore, new clause 74 is drafted in a way which gives central Government a degree of flexibility. There may be arguments in favour of meeting the full costs or the Government may consider it more appropriate to make a contribution. A tariff may be needed to reflect different costs in different parts of the country. As I have said, we will discuss the use of the powers in detail with the local authority associations.

As hon. Members know, the Government have embarked upon a substantial expansion of the secure accommodation estate in order not only to provide sufficient places for 15 and 16-year-old boys on remand who are currently sent to prison but to accommodate 12 to 14-year-olds who will be subject to secure remands. In all, we currently intend to create an additional 170 places. The Department of Health will shortly publish a plan explaining how the places will be supplied.

I expect the new clause to be welcomed both by potential purchasers and by potential providers of additional places, as it creates a framework in which revenue costs can be provided centrally. It also creates a framework in which the mechanism for providing payments can be amended in the light of experience gained in the operation of the system—hence the need for maximum flexibility.

4.30 pm

I will try to anticipate what Opposition Members will say and comment briefly on their amendments to the new clause. Those amendments seek to restrict the degree of flexibility available to the Government in defraying the costs incurred by local authorities in complying with court-ordered remands of 12 to 16-year-olds to local authority accommodation with a security requirement. Amendment (a) would remove the Secretary of State's discretion to defray those costs, and replace it with a duty to do so. Amendment (b) would require the Secretary of State to defray all reasonable costs, instead of costs to such extent as he considers appropriate". Amendment (c) would remove the provision for the costs to be defrayed on the basis—determined by the Secretary of State from time to time—of either a fixed proportion of the costs or a tariff.

I recognise the concern that lies behind the amendments—concern that local authorities should not be put under undue financial strain in complying with court-ordered secure remands of 12 to 16-year-olds to local authority accommodation with a security requirement. The Government are sympathetic to the need, in the case of such remands, for direct central revenue support by fee payment to individual authorities: that is why we tabled new clause 74.

The Government will discuss in detail with local authority associations the use of the powers provided in new clause 74 before they come into operation. There may be arguments in favour of meeting the full costs, or the Government may consider it more appropriate to make a contribution. As I have said, a tariff may be needed to reflect different costs in different parts of the country. What is certain is that there can be no advantage in seeking to restrict the scope of our discussions with local authorities in the way sought by the Opposition amendments, and I urge the House not to support them.

Amendment No. 52 is a technical measure to extend the scope of the expenses that could be provided for under the Bill to include those required by the Secretary of State to make payments under contracts entered into for the purpose of placing youngsters subject to secure training orders in accommodation other than secure training centres—that will be in section 2—or of the supervision by a designated person of youngsters under secure training orders after their release.

Amendment No. 53 inserts a new subsection (5A), which makes express provision for the reimbursement by the Secretary of State of the expenses of the probation committee—or, as the case may be, the local authority—in meeting its obligation to supervise an offender in accordance with clause 3 and any rules made under that clause. Amendment No. 54 adds a new subsection providing for payments to be defrayed out of money provided by Parliament. Amendment No. 57 makes an alteration to schedule 10, which amends the Probation Service Act 1993, to exclude the expenses of the probation committee incurred under clause 3 from the definition of qualifying expenses in section 17(2) of that Act. That prevents the Home Office from, in effect, paying for the supervision of offenders twice. I hope that the House will welcome the amendments as sensible measures to allow the probation service and local authorities to be paid directly by the Secretary of State.

New clause 79 is important. It would permit local authorities to contract out the management of secure accommodation in local authority and local authority controlled community homes. If he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health will respond to any substantive points that hon. Members may raise about the new clause.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I welcome the Minister's statement that he intends to provide a commitment to proper financing of the Government's policies. That makes him almost unique among Ministers. I hope that he will develop the principle that he has enunciated when we debate crime prevention, drugs policy and many of the other important issues that the Opposition will wish to raise.

I should like to express some concern on my own behalf and on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe), the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman on these issues, in the context of health and social services. While welcoming some elements of the provisions that the Minister has introduced, we are concerned about the lateness of their introduction. It would have been beneficial if the discussions to which the Minister referred had taken place well in advance. That would have enabled the nature of the provisions to be worked out better.

The Minister is anxious to gain flexibility for central Government. That sounds to me like an attempt to secure the ability to stay within cost limits. The hon. Gentleman said that there would be detailed discussion of the means of reimbursement. What we want, and what our amendments seek to achieve, is that the Minister should honour his commitment to the provision of proper financing of Government policies and that he should be constrained to do so fairly.

The Minister says that the Government have embarked on an expansion of secure accommodation, but there has been no proper consultation about what is needed or of what would be effective and the Government have taken a long time to get around to this action. The cost of secure accommodation is certainly a problem for local authorities—it may be more than £1,700 a week and even sometimes over £2,000—but availability is also a problem, as illustrated by the scandalous case reported in the press and other media over the weekend. This is a day-to-day problem for those dealing with the most difficult youngsters.

I was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs which dealt with the criminal justice legislation of 1991. In February that year the Committee was promised by the then Minister that secure places would be made available for the purpose of ending the scandal of youngsters aged 16 and 17 being held in adult accommodation. That promise has not yet been fulfilled, lack of cash being the main problem. My own local authority experienced a lack of capital from the Welsh Office for this purpose.

The Select Committee, in its report of last July on juvenile offenders, said: While capital costs and part of the cost of commissioning of the building are met by central Government, revenue funding is met by local authorities, with authorities which do not have secure accommodation having to buy places from those who do … this puts a particularly heavy burden on local authorities in the start-up phase of a new unit, while the high cost of accommodation makes authorities very wary of planning secure accommodation unless they can ensure it will be filled. At the conclusion of its comments the Committee said: We do not believe that it is appropriate for local authorities to bear the security costs of accommodating youngsters committed by the courts. We recommend that the costs of holding juveniles committed by the courts to local authority accommodation should be met from central funds. The Committee did not say that those costs should be partly met from central funds. While I welcome the action that the Minister has taken, I have to say that it is only a partial step. The new clause is a step in the right direction, but we need a commitment that the Minister will seriously consider the possibility of meeting all costs.

Government new clause 79 appears to be designed to extend privatisation of parts of homes and contractorisation of whole and of parts of places in which young people are held. We argued in Committee that clause 19 is wrong in principle and that it is not appropriate for the private sector to run secure accommodation for this most difficult group of children, who require the highest degree of expertise.

In view of the very important debates ahead of us, we do not wish to prolong this one. I therefore ask the Minister to provide in detail the information that is available. Perhaps we might be given something like notes on clauses of the kind that would have been supplied had these provisions been included at an earlier stage. Hon. Members need to be fully informed about what the Government are seeking to do. Members of another place should also be informed of the full import of the Government's intentions so that they may debate the matter properly.

It would be nice if the Government would indicate acceptance of our amendments, as they would help to meet the high principles expressed in the first sentence of the Minister's introductory speech. I do not suppose that that will happen, but I hope that the Government will proceed further down this path.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I wish to declare an interest because, as the House knows, I am a parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales.

New clause 74 is important because it deals with the provision of secure accommodation. The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) referred to the discussions which have taken place over the past two years or so on the need to provide additional secure accommodation, and I confirm what he said. About two years ago, I led a deputation from the Police Federation to see the then Minister of State for Health on this very matter. The then Minister, now the Secretary of State for Health, was sympathetic to what we had to say but it was clear to me that she was considering the need to provide secure places mainly as an alternative to sending juveniles to prison. As the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth pointed out, we have not made the progress that we should have liked to make in providing the places that are so desperately needed.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, for what he said today about the Government's commitment to funding part of the substantial cost of providing secure accommodation. It is not right to leave it all to local authorities, and it is absolutely right that the Government should bear a share of what must be a fairly substantial expenditure item.

Additional secure accommodation is desperately needed. The thrust of the Bill is to ensure that it is provided to deal with juveniles, but I believe that the only way we shall get it is if local authorities across the country know that they can provide it in partnership with the Government. These are hard times for local authorities, for all the reasons with which we are familiar. I should like local authorities and the Government to work in partnership to fund and provide the accommodation as quickly as possible. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and, knowing my hon. Friend the Minister as I do, I am sure that he will use his considerable energy to ensure that the programme is driven through. I therefore support the new clause.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. John Bowis)

I shall certainly take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby). Financing is something that the Government will be discussing with local authorities to ascertain how the best progress can be made.

The hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth asked a number of specific questions about new clause 79. As the House and he will be aware, the Bill already incorporates powers of de-monopolisation of the provision of secure residential children's homes. Those powers were introduced after full consultation with local government and the voluntary and private sectors. The new clause is simply a logical extension of that provision and will enable local authorities, if they so wish, to consider contracting out the management of secure accommodation in local authority community homes and with the consent of the board of managers of local authority controlled community homes. They would, if they so wish—I stress the discretionary nature of the new clause—be able to bring to bear the philosophy and experience of the voluntary sector, or the particular skills of the private sector, on the management of these homes; the range of options would thus be extended in the search by local authorities for the most efficient and effective ways of providing the services.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, said, we are currently discussing with local authorities the need to provide an additional 170 places nation wide to enable the Government to meet their commitment under the Criminal Justice Act 1991 to abolish penal remand for 15 and 16-year-old boys and to meet additional accommodation requirements arising from the provisions of this Bill. The discussions are going well, and we welcome the local authorities' co-operation and willingness to help to meet the Government's target. I stress that there is nothing in the new clause to frustrate the efforts of local authorities to provide additional accommodation. The choice of whether existing and new accommodation should be managed directly by local authorities or other contractors will of course be a matter entirely for the local authorities.

Ms Ann Coffey (Stockport)

I am interested to hear what the Minister said about negotiations with local authorities going well, but may I press him on what he means? In Stockport, my local authority last year had to pay a considerable amount of money for secure accommodation for which no provision was made in the standard spending assessment. I should not have thought that local authorities would believe that things were going well unless they had received a substantive commitment from the Government about the funding of secure training orders.

Mr. Bowis

What I said is what I meant. We have a commitment to create an additional 170 places nation wide; we are in discussion with local authorities in various parts of the country and our discussions are going well. I am not able to announce today the conclusion of those discussions, but I expect the hon. Lady to be pleased with us when we are able to do so.

4.45 pm
Mr. Michael

The Minister has responded positively to some of the points that I made, but will he give an undertaking to put in writing the information that I requested? In view of the three-year delay since the promise was made to provide secure places, will he give an undertaking to set a time scale for concluding discussions with local authorities?

Mr. Bowis

We are not in the business of holding guns to heads but I can genuinely tell the hon. Gentleman that he should just wait and see. Good progress is being made with local authorities and I think that he will be pleased when we are able to make our announcement. In response to his request for notes on clauses or briefing, I am happy to give a commitment that they will be made available.

I can also give two further assurances. First, there is nothing in our proposals to weaken the existing safeguards covering the inspection and approval of secure accommodation. Secondly, local authorities will continue to be responsible for decisions about the placement of children in their care and they will have to have proper regard for the rights and welfare of those young people.

I also make it clear that it is the Government's policy intention at some future date to enable local authorities—again, if they so wish—to contract out the management of non-secure accommodation in local authority community homes.

The new clause is a useful option for local authorities and brings with it all the safeguards that the hon. Gentleman and I seek. Homes will continue to be subject to the the regulations relating to children's homes, with all that that implies for adequate staffing levels, the provision of suitable accommodation for each child, adequate facilities, food and clothing and record keeping. The secure accommodation regulations on procedural safeguards will also apply. Social services inspections will apply, as will the Secretary of State's power to order the closure of a home that had unsuitable premises or where the conduct was in breach of the children's homes regulations. The safeguards will continue as of now. It is a discretion—and only a discretion—that we offer as a half-way house to de-monopolisation under clause 19. I am confident that the House will support it.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second Time, and added to the Bill.

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